THE WHIRLING LAYERS OF THE BYGONE
Jukka Koskelainen (born 1961) is a poet, essayist, translator and critic. He has published four collections of poetry. He was editor in chief of the magazine Nuori Voima from 1991-94, he has translated amongst others the works of Paul Celan, Octavio Paz and Durs Grünbein and his collection of essays Atlantiksen perintö (‘The inheritance of Atlantis’) was published in 2000.
As a poet, Koskelainen could well be described as a romantic modernist. His poetry seems to share the traditions of early German romanticism and 20th century modernism. The speaker in his poems is often a character constructed according to romantic art philosophy, a creative force breaking down boundaries and searching for a fresh sense of unity and wholeness. Continuing in the tradition of the symbolists, the surrealists and revolutionaries of the 1960’s Koskelainen disassembles the stiff, dead ways of thinking upon which modern industrial society is based and in doing so constructs his own alternative world, in which magically taut language and delirious visions clear the way towards another way of being or existing.
Koskelainen’s language is at once both ‘difficult’ and immediate. Multi-layered images, swift changes of persona and constructions which defy grammar make for some challenging reading. Language is pushed to the limit as the poet searches for an appropriate way of expressing something which cannot be achieved by using everyday speech. Koskelainen uses rather experimental language as a way of opening up the world and the people in it in a way, which questions conventional meanings and catalyses new ones. The imagery is generally of a concrete nature: objects and landscapes are hollowed out in every little detail. These concrete images do however display hidden connections to the invisible and the underground. Nothing is quite what it seems. Some things appear to have more aspects to them than there are words in the language and it is due to this that even a great torrent of images can merely scratch the surface. “Everything could be dealt with effectively, / only corruption understands real time, but / porous, cavitied night opens up pathways into the yard and underneath it.”
Koskelainen’s output forms a polyphonic whole; it is difficult to discern any one speaker. Nonetheless the poems themselves each have their own unquestionable voice; indeed, they underline the role of the speaker and its subjectivity. The poet often considers his own identity, wanders through strange places and sees ‘visions’, wild surreal images. The strong presence of a thinking and perceptive first person, an ‘I’, can always be felt. This ‘I’ never disappears into the background, not even when a poem deals with great cultural and philosophical questions or takes a stance on the problems of our time, such as the conflicting legacy of the Enlightenment. This focus on the subject is also apparent in the expressionist descriptions of heightened emotional states. Melancholy, desperation, loneliness and a feeling of raggedness continually afflict the speakers in these poems. However, in the manner in which these states of mind give rise to profound and not gloomy poetry, they cannot be viewed as illnesses. Rather, they are an occupational hazard. Koskelainen considers his role delving into dark waters in an often ironically amused way. Nonetheless the principal tone of the poems remains serious throughout.
The characteristics mentioned above do not perhaps assess what is at the heart of Koskelainen’s poetry. I have commented merely on the colour of the apple’s skin, but have not dealt with what its core looks and tastes like. Koskelainen’s poems evade simple pigeon-holing, methods of interpretation and a sense of routine in reading them. The reader is drawn into a whirlwind of meanings, thoughts and language imagery, a world in which there is no map and one has lost one’s grasp on the ‘norm’. It would be pointless to try and tame the swirling cross-current of ideas in Koskelainen’s poetry by attempting to answer the question: ‘what are they about?’ Any answer is doomed to be unsatisfactory: this would mean the solidification of that which flows, twists, foams and sparkles in these poems into some form, which cannot encompass them all. It is impossible to stop the poems’ movement, even if one were to read them a hundred times.
Perhaps the key to the inexhaustibility of Koskelainen’s poems is to be found in the collection Niin lavastetaan lännen taivas (‘Thus we stage the Western Sky’) – more specifically in the poem ‘Alkuaineita’ (‘Raw material’). In a way common to the poet, nature does not manifest itself as a calm presence but rather as a raging torrent of activity. In the poem, clay is the element from which both humans and plants are born and in which they eventually drown. The clay swells and consumes everything with it. The poem concludes with a kind of list: like in a spell, a power is summoned, a power which humans may not name, but which the clay itself recognises. “leaf-green, charcoal, sound, cross-current,/ the sinewy oar-stroke of one rowing on the bottom,/ whirlpool, vortex, spiral, vertigo.” I believe that the true raw material of Koskelainen’s poetry is crystallised in these lines.
Antennae, satellites, cables and other electrical phenomena also form part of the recurring imagery in all of Koskelainen’s collections. Their buzzing and whirring forms the background noise in Koskelainen’s poetic cosmos, the sound of space filled with technology. Although the air is filled with the junk of progress and the whims of engineers, we cannot hear this equipment’s noise without writhing and racing language at the sight of them, a language which Koskelainen brings before us. He depicts landscapes full of dumping grounds throughout the world in a manner, which gives the reader the opportunity to sense in a fresh and physical way that which is closest to us, yet is often left uncovered. As motorways begin to whirr and messages bleep, today’s hyper-developed infrastructure is forced into the palms of an age-old animism. This collision gives rise to the irreconcilable tension common in Koskelainen’s work between the primitive and the ultra-modern.
In his collection of essays, The Inheritance of Atlantis Koskelainen claims that the greatest drama of the 20th century was the turning of modernism against itself. In seeking out authentic holistic experience, largely forgotten by Western culture, radical modernist movements turned into reactionaries. Poetry broke down barriers, but not towards an unknown future – rather towards a long-lost bygone age.
The same could well be said of Koskelainen’s own poetry. When the ready-made reality of the information age becomes numbing, a stronger sense of living must be found from the extremes of a fully technologized world, from language, an area which technology does not yet control. But as a poet who takes history into due account, Koskelainen is well aware that one cannot replace stale spiritual life with some kind of culture-political agenda. One cannot forget the warning of the example of Nazism.
Neither should one stop searching for lost origins. Koskelainen’s three collections of poetry are testament to the fact that stylistically strict and uncompromising poetry can still reach the unobtainable, as long as it has the conviction and the strength to fail. For fear of drowning, the poet must still climb feet first back into the womb, because that which is found in the dimness is never the same as yesterday. “I found a beach where the sand wipes away the face/ - - / clears the way for new types, creates furrows / for a different, more torrential current behind the screens”.
translated by David Hackston
Kierros (1995), Erään taistelun kuvaus (1997), Atlantiksen perintö (essays, 2000), Niin lavastetaan lännen taivas (2001), Anteeksi häiriö, mutta tämä on vallankumous (essays, 2004), Mitä et sano (2005)